Vacansopapurosophobia


tumbleweed

< crickets >

For those of you who have watched the tumbleweeds roll by on this blog in the past year, I apologize.

It’s been eleven months since my last blog post and I have no excuse.

Sure, I have been busy – 2013 was one hell of a ride. I founded my own company (Z-sharp), worked hard on getting things started, created presentations and papers to present at conferences, co-organized Belgium’s first public RST course with Michael Bolton, attended and organized peer workshops and delivered webinars.

I knew from past experience that being busy does not necessarily mean that your writing suffers. And yet I had no energy for blogging.

I kept telling myself “Just wait it out, ideas will pop up. There’s no need to do things half-heartedly. Pick your battles”.

Self-diagnosis

Ideas did pop up. Plenty of them, eventually. Strangely enough I felt no urge to act upon them, which in turn reinforced the feeling I was stuck. It started to freak me out. This was the first time I hit a dry writing spell of this length. What was happening?

“That’s it”, I thought. “Vacansopapurosophobia – the fear of a blank page” (the first word that came to mind was “writer’s block”, to be honest. But I like the sound of vacansopapurosophobia better, it has a nice supercalifragilisticexpialidocious ring to it).

Writer’s block – the fear of every aspiring writer! Or rather, blogger’s block. Wait – did I just self-diagnose myself?

“Self-diagnosis is the process of diagnosing, or identifying, medical conditions in oneself. It may be assisted by medical dictionaries, books, resources on the Internet, past personal experiences, or recognizing symptoms or medical signs of a condition that a family member previously had. Self-diagnosis is prone to error and may be potentially dangerous if inappropriate decisions are made on the basis of a misdiagnosis” (source: Wikipedia)

The danger of self-diagnosis is that you’re mainly forming conclusions based on internet folklore. Quite ironically, there *is* a lot of writing about writer’s block on the internet, with causes ranging from too much audience awareness and perfectionism over burnout to flat-out depression.

Weinberg on writing

I decided to seek guidance from a professional. I dug up my copy of “Weinberg on Writing“, in which my personal Yoda Jerry Weinberg describes his writing process. I still vividly recall my amazement several years ago when when I first read it. It fit my own amateurish and seemingly unstructured writing style like a glove.

In the book, Weinberg compares writing to the creation of stone-wall structures. Harnessing ideas and words into a written work is a lot like building a stone wall: gathering, arranging, rearranging, and discarding fieldstones as the wall evolves organically over time. To be successful in your writing, Weinberg suggests, you should have many fieldstones, chunks of work in progress. But be aware that “in progress” is a very vague concept: it may mean you’ve written two words, a hundred words, or even several chapter-like things.

The fieldstones allow you to make progress on any piece of work. The method helps to keep personal energy high, efforts focused and the daunting work of composition forward-moving.

Weinberg on not writing

I dove in the part on writer’s block (you can read an article based on that chapter here), and the following sentence struck a chord – or two:

“Writer’s block is not a disorder in you, the writer. It’s a deficiency in your writing methods – the mythology you’ve swallowed about how works get written.”

Of course! I knew this all along, but I let it get snowed in in my middle-aged excuse for a brain. The creation of a text is not a linear process, like reading is. Reading structures are presentation methods, not creation methods. Creation doesn’t work in such a linear way.

Later on I stumbled upon a rather amusing interview with Jerry Weinberg in which he dispels the myth of writer’s block. This taught me another valuable lesson: as long as you have things you can do, you aren’t blocked at all. When you feel stuck with one part, work on another – they don’t even have to be directly related. There is always something you can do to keep on moving.

All of a sudden, I came to the realization  that the solution to my problem was very simple.

“You have nothing to write about? How lovely is that! Isn’t that a GREAT subject?”

So here I am, writing my first blog post in ages, about why I wasn’t writing. I hope I’m here to stay.

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Whose problem is it, anyway?

My oldest daughter is suffering from a split lower lip for quite some time now. It appeared shortly after the first grim winter spell. It didn’t hurt, she said, so we didn’t pay a lot of attention to it. We treated it with a special ointment and a rather girlish chapstick. But after a while, it occured to us that the wound wasn’t healing nicely. What’s even worse: because of her constant fidgeting with the newly formed crust, it wasn’t healing at all.

So far, every attempt to stop her from doing that was met with total indifference. I couldn’t wrap my head around it. This would surely develop into a scar. In her face. Come on – didn’t she see that she was slowly mutilating herself?

A couple of days ago, I tried to tactfully tackle the issue once more during a toothbrushing session.

– “Time to brush those teeth, girl”

– “Okay, daddy”

I noticed some dried-up blood on her lip.

– “Did you remove the crust again? I told you not to do that”

She kept her cool.

– “I didn’t”

– “Don’t lie, honey…”

– “Well, not intentionally…”

I thought she was just testing my patience.

– “You’re pulling my leg, right?”

– “No daddy. Really. No. I mean… I can’t help it. And I don’t remember touching the crust.”

– “I told you, you should let it heal nicely. If you keep scratching your lip and removing the crust, it will become a scar. And scars aren’t pretty.”

She started brushing her teeth, gazing down at the sink. Total indifference. Again. I didn’t understand. How could she remain so calm under all this? I already had visions about her scarred face and classmates making fun of her, and she couldn’t care less! I was about to shift in daddy preaching mode (that it would make her ugly, that she would regret it big time later on, all that stuff) when, suddenly, she looked me straight in the eyes.

– “Why is that such a big deal, daddy?”

– “What do you mean? You don’t care about your face?”

I thought she was just provoking me. Instead, she gave me a brief look into her six-year old unspoiled mind, teaching me a valuable lesson in the process:

– “It’s no problem, really. I don’t see it.

– “You don’t see what?”

– “My face. I don’t see my face.”

She left me speechless for a while after that. I was stupefied. Of course! She doesn’t care, because she simply doesn’t see a problem.

Only afterwards, it occurred to me that these are the kinds of situations that are described in “Are your lights on?” (by Jerry Weinberg and Don Gause). A highly recommended and playful book on problem solving, by the way.

The authors describe a problem as “a difference between things as desired and things as perceived“.

When confronted with a problem, they advise us to:

  1. Identify the problem
  2. Determine the problem’s owner
  3. Identify where the problem came from
  4. Determine whether or not to solve it

The problem

What is the nature of the problem? A wound in her lip that is not healing. The constant fidgeting with the healing wound might cause an ugly scar or an infection. Or both.

The problem’s owner

Whose problem is that lip, anyway? My daughter’s? Her lip doesn’t hurt. And she perceives things differently: it never occured to me that she doesn’t see it constantly. She’s not the kind of girl that spends her time in front of a mirror, and if she does, it is only to admire that fancy new dress, her fairy make-up or that special Pippi Longstocking hairdo. But *never* her face. So, unless it starts hurting or until she hits puberty and starts seeing herself through the eyes of others, it will pretty much be the problem of her worried parents.

Where does the problem come from?

As the book also points out, the source of the problem most often originates within the person trying to solve the problem. Parents want their children to be healthy, beautiful, succesful and happy. Anything that threatens our children’s bliss worries us. In this case, we got nervous, made her nervous, possibly reinforcing the fidgeting behavior.

Should we solve the problem?

We want that wound to heal beautifully, for sure, but is this something we can really solve ourselves? Our daughter will only be motivated to adapt her behavior when *she* starts seeing it as *her* problem. Until then, and unless it develops into something more severe, we are perhaps better off by leaving the wound as is – let nature have its way.

Epilogue

“Children wish fathers looked but with their eyes;
fathers that children with their judgment looked;
and either may be wrong”
(William Shakespeare)

That day, my daughter made one thing crystal clear to me – I shouldn’t inflict my fears and worries on a six-year old who doesn’t yet care about her image in the mirror.

Children’s own pass/fail criteria (and nursery rhymes)

One month ago, my oldest daughter (6) started taking on rope skipping. The last time I had seen her practising, two weeks ago, she was still having trouble getting the rope neatly over (and under) herself, but yesterday she was able to complete several jumps in one go in a fluent movement. It was the first time I had seen her do that, so I was pretty impressed.

She was clearly in learning mode. I sat down to observe her more closely. 

– “Wow, where did you learn all that?”

– “I’ve been watching older girls do that in school, daddy. Watch”.

She started jumping and counting out loud.

– “One, two, three, four, five, six, …”

She tripped on the rope.

– “Woohoo! Six!”

– “You go, girl!”

– “Again! One, two, three, four, five, nooooo…”

– “Five is good”.

– “No, daddy, five is not good. Again!”

She repeated the process a couple of times. She jumped seven (“Yes!”), four (“Nooo!”), five (“Pfff!”), six (“Yippie!”). I started noticing a pattern. It struck me that she alternated frustration with joy, and she let it depend on the number of jumps. Time for some questioning.

– “Why are you happy with anything above or equal to six, but unhappy with anything lower?”

– “It has to be at least six, daddy”.

– “Why six?”

She seemed really annoyed that I didn’t see her point. She thought I was pulling her leg.

– “Because I’m _six_ years old, daddy. Didn’t you know? What else could it be?”.

I was totally flabbergasted. She managed to impose some totally arbitrary pass/fail criteria on herself. Where did that come from? I thought that using pass/fail tests actually sabotages kids’ natural learning processes? But this appeared to come out of herself. No-one told her that she had to make at least six.

I wondered – maybe she just chose her age as a starting point, just to set some initial learning goals for herself? Was she planning on raising the bar later on when reaching six would have become too easy? Unfortunately I didn’t have the chance to follow-up on that – lunchtime!

Flash forward to work. All this reminded me of commonly defined pass/fail criteria such as

“90% of all tests must pass”

Really? 

In “Are your lights on?”, Jerry Weinberg uses the well-known “Mary had a little lamb” nursery rhyme to show how a seemingly straightforward statement is prey to multiple interpretations, depending on which word you emphasize. An invaluable heuristic when looking at requirements. Why not try that on the familiar pass/fail criterium stated above?

“90%”? What if the tests that would have revealed some serious errors happen to be in that 10% you so confidently dismissed? Why not 89 or 91?

“All”? You know “all” possible tests that can be performed? Are they all documented? Some of them might still be residing in your head. What if in the meanwhile we performed some more important tests that revealed serious risks? Are these tests part of “All”?

“Tests”? Do you only count scripted tests, or do you also take exploratory ones into account? What about important usability issues some users might have found? Or acceptance test checklists? Or automated checks? 

– “Must”? What if not all 90% passes? Does this mean your solution is without value? The customer might value other things than you do. Is it up to you to decide how much value is in there?

“Pass” ? What about behavior that is totally acceptable for your client, but that we find annoying? Pass or fail? What about tests that pass all steps, but that reveal important problems as a side-effect? Sometimes a test’s pass/fail decision is not binary.

My daughter went to school this morning and – for the first time –  took her own jump rope with her. I wonder how many % of her rope jump cases will pass this time.

Volcanic systems thinking

General systems thinking and the effects of a volcano outburst

I believe testing is about looking at things from as many perspectives as you can. Testing is also about relating things to one another, seeing things in a greater context.  In that sense you could say that testing is applied systems thinking. 

Years ago, Michael Bolton pointed me to the amazing book “Introduction to general systems thinking” by Jerry Weinberg. Actually, he pointed me to practically every publication by Jerry Weinberg – I’m still trying to prioritise my reading list. The book taught me that taking a holistic view of a system within its environment, may enable us to see patterns of behavior/actions and recognize interactions and interdependencies among its components. That way, we can better understand the system, maybe even predict how it will evolve over time.

The recent volcanic eruptions of the Eyjafjallajökull in Iceland provide a great example of (and also an exercise in) real-life general systems thinking and how several systems are possibly interconnected. I started wondering… What can the possible consequences of the recent volcanic eruption be, worldwide? There is a fair chance that other volcanoes nearby will erupt too. Scientists say history has proven that when the Eyjafjallajökull volcano erupts, the Katla volcano follows — the only question is how soon. And Katla, located under the massive Myrdalsjokull icecap, threatens disastrous flooding and explosive blasts when it blows.

If we can rely on history repeating itself, we’re onto something big. Let’s look at a true story. In June 1783, the eruption of the Icelandic Laki volcano was the start of a chain of unlikely events that affected everyone’s lives:

The immediate impact was catastrophic: around 25% of the Icelandic population died in the famine and fluorine poisoning after the eruptions ceased. Around 80% of sheep, 50% of cattle and 50% of horses died because of dental and skeletal fluorosis.

The rest of Europe soon followed:

  • A thick, poisonous smog cloud floated across the jet stream, resulting in many thousands of deaths throughout 1783 and the winter of 1784. Inhaling sulfur dioxide gas caused victims to choke. 
  • The thick fog caused boats to stay in port, unable to navigate.
  • Weather patterns started changing across western Europe:
    • The summer of 1783 was the hottest on record at that time. 
    • Severe thunderstorms with hailstones even killed cattle.
    • In 1784, a most severe winter caused 8,000 deaths in the UK.
    • During the melting that followed in spring, all of Europe reported severe flood damage.

And these were only the short term effects. The meteorological impact of the Laki eruption resonated on, contributing significantly to several years of extreme weather in Europe and the rest of the world:

  • In New Orleans, the Mississipi river froze, and ice started appearing in the gulf of Mexico.
  • African and Indian monsoon circulations weakened, leading to precipitation anomalies over the Sahel that resulted in low flow in the river Nile.
  • In France, a surplus harvest in 1785 caused poverty for rural workers.
  • For years afterwards, severe droughts followed. There were a series of bad winters and summers, including a violent hailstorm in 1788 that destroyed crops.
  • All this contributed significantly to the build up of poverty and famine that eventually triggered the French Revolution in 1789.

Wow. Time-out. Really? Could it be that the eruption of an Icelandic volcano lies at the basis of the French revolution, six years later? Since all these seemingly independent systems (meteorological, economic, agricultural and sociological) *are* connected, that’s perfectly plausible. Apparently, the indirect and long-term consequences of the eruption have greater impact than the initial effects of the event. Even art was affected. The most beautiful sunsets started appearing in late 18th-century paintings.

And what were the effects of the French revolution again? The abolition of Feudalism, for starters. The creation of a new order based on the famous ‘Declaration of the Rights of Man’. The main theme of the French Revolution, ‘Liberty, Equality and Fraternity’, later became one of the most famous political dogmas across the world. You could say that the Revolution paved the way for democracy. It brought about a lot of economic and social reforms, not only in France, but across Europe. Culture was also affected, at least in the short term, with the revolution permeating every creative endeavour. It changed the face of Europe: national identities joined forces, everywhere. In short: the revolution helped shape the future course of the world.

If we now think about the current eruptions of that rather friendly tongue-twister called Eyjafjallajökull, we notice that there are many more systems in play than there were in 1783. There’s commercial aviation and worldwide travel now; both of them fuel our economies and came to an abrupt stop. Airline stocks dropped rapidly. All this resulted in massive economic losses and temporary unemployment.  Several events are being cancelled because people cannot get there in time. People are trapped abroad or forced to stay at home. And these are only the short-term effects. I wonder what this year’s summer will be like. I already look forward to walking or skating across the channel to visit London. Or maybe throw a snowball or two at the gendarmes of Saint-Tropez.

And that’s just Eyjafjallajökull. Not Katla, not Laki. Just sayin’.

Parcel delivery frenzy

FedEx parcel delivery frenzy

When I stumbled upon this little FedEx-screenshot, I couldn’t help but wondering about the carbon footprint of the package involved. Sent from Ontario, California (yes, it’s actually the Fedex hub in California, not Ontario, Canada) with destination The Netherlands AN – crossing the Atlantic four times in the process.

As good software testers, we tend to ask ourselves “is there a problem here?”

Ambiguous country codes, for sure. The North-American branch probably interpreted Netherlands AN as The Netherlands while the European branch interpreted the code as The Netherlands Antilles, and after that some serious ping-ponging ensued. Actually, the real destination is in the Caribbean-  AN does stand for Antilles. Which makes me wonder: is there actual scanning of labels going on? If so, they better check their labeling/scanning/routing software.  Or are employees just interpreting and sorting the countries themselves? If so, they’d better teach them some basic geography – no rest for the geographically challenged! There could also be two packages circulating with the same label, but I guess in that case the date/time figures and locations wouldn’t make too much sense. Ah well… Maybe people should start thinking more about ways how programs could fail instead of just confirming the happy paths. But wait, let’s not only blame the testers, give the developers some credit as well – courtesy of Jerry Weinberg:

“If builders built buildings the way programmers wrote programs, then the first woodpecker that came along would destroy civilization.”